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Wislawa Szymborska Nobel Prize for Literature

Born in 1923, Szymborska is a Polish poet.

Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska, a private—some would say reclusive—widow, has been described as "the Mozart of poetry … [with] something of the fury of Beethoven." Although she is perhaps Poland's most...

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Wislawa Szymborska Nobel Prize for Literature

Born in 1923, Szymborska is a Polish poet.

Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, Szymborska, a private—some would say reclusive—widow, has been described as "the Mozart of poetry … [with] something of the fury of Beethoven." Although she is perhaps Poland's most popular female writer and valued as a national treasure there, she is little known by English-speaking readers, and only three books of her poetry have been translated: Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts (1981); People on a Bridge (1986); and View with a Grain of Sand (1995). "Polish poetry in the 20th century has reached a strong international position on the European continent," observed renowned Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz. "Szymborska represents it well." Szymborska emphasizes and examines the chance happenings of daily life and of personal relations in her poetry, which spans five decades. "She is a master at recognizing the importance of the insignificant …," explained James Beschta, "it is the innovative, playful use of language that dominates her style." While Szymborska treats a wide variety of subjects in as many different styles, her method remains constant: her lyrics usually build from some small detail, then expand into revelations about the larger universe. Szymborska published her first poem in 1945, but she later renounced her first two volumes of poetry as attempts to conform to tenets of social realism. The Swedish Academy acknowledged that it awarded the Nobel Prize to her on the basis of her poems written since 1957, when she published her third collection, Calling out to the Yeti, which the Academy cited as a reaction against Stalin. "Of course, life crosses politics, but my poems are strictly not political," Szymborska said in a rare interview. "They are more about people and life." Beata Chmiel concluded that the Nobel was given "to an unknown poet of Poland, but this poet can be very close to people all over the world: men, women, black and white."

Principal Works

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Dlatego zyjemy (poetry) 1952
Pytania zadawane sobie (poetry) 1954
Wolanie do Yeti (poetry) 1957
Sól (poetry) 1962
Wiersze wybrane (poetry) 1964
Sto pociech (poetry) 1967
Poezje wybrane (poetry) 1967
Poezje (poetry) 1970

Wybór poezji (poetry) 1970
Wszelki wypadek (poetry) 1972
Wybór wierszy (poetry) 1973
Lektury nadobowiazkowe (lectures) 1974
Tarsjusz i inne wiersze (poetry) 1976
Wielka liczba (poetry) 1976
Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: 70 Poems (poetry) 1981
Poezje wybrane (II) (poetry) 1983
Ludzie na moscie [People on a Bridge] (poetry) 1986
Poezje = Poems (poetry) 1989
The End and the Beginning (poetry) 1993
View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems (poetry) 1995

∗This work is a bilingual edition.

Alice-Catherine Carls (review date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Poezje=Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 519.

[In the following review, Carls detects "a grim reminder of taboos that are still bridling Polish society" in Poezji = Poems.]

Polish publishers have a tradition of publishing original works written in foreign languages. The present volume, a reprint of a 1981 bilingual selection of Wislawa Szymborska's verse (Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts: Seventy Poems), belongs to that category. Given the present shortage of paper in Poland and the resultant price tag of 2,500 zlotys—a student's entire monthly stipend in the 1970s—such an undertaking can only be justified by Szymborska's status as one of the finest postwar Polish poets and by the desire to acknowledge her popularity abroad.

Surprisingly missing from the Polish edition, however, are the comments and the bibliographic note contained in the American edition; the Polish volume remains silent as well about the translators, on whom a note would have been appropriate, especially in light of the recent death of Magnus J. Krynski, a prominent Polish émigré. The American edition's introduction by the translators has now become the afterword. Its opening lines about Polish critics' unabating praise for Szymborska have been deleted. Later, one paragraph referring to the poems written under Stalinist rule and two paragraphs mentioning political themes, the poet's recent protest against Stalinist politics, and her involvement in the Flying University have been deleted. As a result, the footnotes have been considerably abridged. Szymborska's poetry stands bare here, a grim reminder of taboos that are still bridling Polish society.

Bogdana Carpenter (review date Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of People on a Bridge, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 163-64.

[In the following review, Carpenter finds People on a Bridge "subtle, witty, and ironic."]

Long recognized in Poland as a leading voice in contemporary Polish poetry, Wislawa Szymborska has not achieved the same popularity in the English-speaking world as other poets of her generation such as Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz. Still, People on a Bridge is not the first introduction of Szymborska's verse to English readers. Czeslaw Milosz included poems by her in his seminal anthology Postwar Polish Poetry (1965), and in 1981 Princeton University Press published a selection of her poems translated by Magnus Krynski and Robert Maguire. Let us hope that the present volume, a welcome addition to those earlier translations, will help bring Szymborska the recognition that she deserves.

The poems selected by Adam Czerniawski come from four different collections and span a period of twenty years. Rather than adhere to chronology, Czerniawski has grouped the poems according to recurring themes, most prominently the problem of art's relationship to time, death, and reality. Thematic unity is further emphasized by a ring composition. The poems opening and closing the book (the only two given both in English translation and in the Polish original) deal with the precariousness of human life, symbolized both times by the image of a bridge, and the inability of art—despite its futile attempt to resist the flow of time—to penetrate the mystery of death and existence.

At the center of Szymborska's attention is the disparity between the limitations of the poetic imagination and the unlimited vastness of reality: "Four billion people on this earth, / but my imagination is as it was" ("Big Numbers"). The mathematical value of [pi] comes closer to expressing the infinite richness of the universe than does the poetic imagination: "It cannot be grasped six five three five at a glance, / eight nine in a calculus / seven nine in imagination, / or even three two three eight in a conceit, that is, a comparison." Art catches only individual facts and existences, a fraction of reality. Poetry, marked by insufficiency and imperfection, is a selection, a renunciation, a passing over in silence, and a "sight" rather than a "full breath." The poet, like anyone else, is unable to transgress his or her own "I," his own particular existence. Being himself, he cannot be what he is not.

In the opposition between reality and art, life and intellect, Szymborska declares herself on the side of reality and life. Ideas are most often pretexts to kill, a deadly weapon, whether under the guise of an artistic experiment ("Experiment"), a political Utopia ("Utopia"), or ideological fanaticism ("The Terrorist, He Watches"). Szymborska sides with reality against art and ideology, and this choice situates her in the mainstream of postwar Polish poetry alongside Milosz, Herbert, and Bialoszewski.

Like Bialoszewski, although in a different idiom, Szymborska extols the everyday and the ordinary. Her "miracle mart" is made of barking dogs, trees reflected in a pond, gentle breezes and gusty storms, the world "ever-present." Even in dreams she appreciates most of all their ability to create the illusion of reality. In the theater she is moved by a glimpse of actors caught beneath the curtain more than by tragic tirades. Her poetry reverses the accepted view of what is important and what is unimportant; it puts forward common and humble reality at the expense of history and politics: "Pebbles bypassed on the beach can be as rounded / as the anniversaries of insurrections" ("May Be Left Untitled").

Pervaded by the spirit of contestation, Wislawa Szymborska's poetry thrives on paradox. A mixture of "loftiness and common speech" ("Unwritten Poem Review"), it is subtle, witty, and ironic.

M. G. Levine (review date January 1992)

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SOURCE: A review of People on a Bridge, in Choice, Vol. 29, No. 5, January, 1992, p. 752.

[In the review below, Levine briefly compares People on a Bridge to the earlier Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts.]

Szymborska is a distinguished Polish poet, admired for her witty, often wry, coolly intellectual poems—poems that at the same time radiate warmth and, through their attention to the particular, often subvert the intellectual categories through which we view the world. Adam Czerniawski has translated 36 of Szymborska's poems published over the last two decades. The present volume is not the first collection of Szymborska's poems in English translation. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts, a selection of 70 poems (the earliest of them from the mid-1950s) in translations by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, was published ten years ago (1981). That volume offered a much richer introduction to Szymborska's poetry, having a more varied and therefore more representative selection and an essay by the translators that is both longer and more informative than Czerniawski's crisp five-page evocation of Szymborska's "particular imagination." Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts had the additional virtue of being a facing-page, bilingual edition. Of the 36 poems in People on a Bridge, 20 also appear in Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts. But Czerniawski's translations are more felicitous, and his selection includes 16 new poems written in the 1980s; thus, People on a Bridge will enhance college and public library collections of poetry in translation.

James Beschta (review date September 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, in Kliatt, Vol. 29, No. 5, September, 1995, p. 29.

[In the review below, Beschta praises View with a Grain of Sand, calling the volume "a joy."]

Although her work has been translated into English before, Szymborska has not been widely recognized here in the States. Here, her selected poems, wonderfully translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, might well change that situation, bringing America into step with Europe, which acknowledges her as arguably Poland's leading female poet. This collection presents 100 poems taken from seven separate volumes. As such, it offers a broad perspective on her career, one which maintains an optimism and sense of wonder about the world while recognizing the trials of reality. In 1957 she says, "We've inherited hope—/ the gift of forgetting …" and in 1993 she points out that

      This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
      of the mornings
      that make waking up worthwhile.
      The grass is green
      on Maciejowice's fields,
      and it is studded with dew,…

Through the writings of nearly 50 years, her sense of humor is as evident as her sense of wonder, and her urge to speculate, to find alternative possible causes for what the rest of us would tend to ignore or accept as evident, makes her as unique as she is delightful. She is a master at recognizing the importance of the insignificant, and though her subtle insights alone are justification for her success, it is the innovative, playful use of language that dominates her style and resonates through these translations. This volume is a joy. Szymborska deserves to be heard and recognized, and this book is a great introduction.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of View with a Grain of Sand, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1996, p. 29.

[In the review below, the critic briefly considers Szymborska's poetic style.]

"So much world all at once—how it rustles and bustles!" Szymborska is constantly amazed and challenged by life's plenty, and in capturing it in language, her poems employ all the "inventiveness / bounty, sweep, exactitude, / sense of order—gifts that border / on witchcraft and wizardry" that she praises in life itself. Though claiming only to have "borrowed from the truth," Szymborska writes lyrics that build from small details, such as a grain of sand, into visions of the wider universe. Her styles, like her subjects, are many, ranging from satire to elegy, meditation to play. She is especially deft at composing brief, spare allegories that have all the emotional force of extended narratives. In rendering this multi-faceted Polish voice into English, the translators (Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) deserve high praise. There is nothing strained or awkward here, and lines like, "Oh how grassy is this hopper, / how this berry ripely rasps," work so well in English it's hard to believe they were conceived in any other language. Culling work from between 1957 and 1993, [View with a Grain of Sand] is the third selection of Szymborska's poems to appear in English. One hopes it won't be the last.

Edward Hirsch (essay date 18 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "Subversive Activities," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIII, No. 7, April 18, 1996, pp. 35-6.

[In the following essay, Hirsch provides an overview of Szymborska's career, analyzing subversive elements in her poetry.]

Wislawa Szymborska, with Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rózewicz, is one of the major living Polish poets of the generation after Milosz. Of the four Szymborska is the least well-known in America, perhaps because she has remained in Poland, and because she shuns the public eye. Little is known about her private life; she has rarely been interviewed. Yet, as in the case of Elizabeth Bishop, her reticence is accompanied by considerable literary ambition. Like Herbert, she has mounted in her work a witty and tireless defense of individual subjectivity against collectivist thinking, and her poems, like his, are slyly subversive in a way that compels us to reconsider received opinion. In both, the rejection of dogma becomes the basis of a canny personal ethics.

Szymborska was born in 1923 in the small town of Bnin in the Poznan area of western Poland. She moved with her family to Cracow when she was eight years old and has lived there ever since. She attended school illegally during the German occupation, when the Nazis banned Polish secondary schools and universities, and after the war studied Polish literature and sociology at Jagiellonian University. From 1952 to 1981 she worked on the editorial staff of the cultural weekly Zycie Literackie (Literary Life). She has published nine collections of poems and several editions of her selected verse, as well as a volume of newspaper reviews and columns. She is also known to Polish readers as a distinguished translator of French poetry, mostly of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

View with a Grain of Sand, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, brings together a hundred poems spanning nearly forty years of Szymborska's work. It is by far the most extensive and readable edition of her poems yet to appear in English. The translators haven't included anything from Szymborska's early books, That's What We Live For (1952) and Questions Put to Myself (1954), and only three poems from her transitional third collection, Calling Out to Yeti (1957). The later volumes, published after she managed to break free of political pressures to conform, are well-represented here: Salt (1962), No End of Fun (1967), Could Have (1972), A Large Number (1976), The People on the Bridge (1986), and The End and the Beginning (1993).

Szymborska comes through well in translation, but Baranczak and Cavanagh are the first to convey the full force of her fierce and unexpected wit. Their versions reproduce the rhythm and rhyme schemes of some of her early poems. They have come up with deft equivalents for her pervasive wordplay, and have recreated the jaunty, precise, deceptively casual free verse of her late work. My only complaint about this splendid book is that it comes without any supplementary information. It has no introduction, no commentary or notes, no afterword—the reader who wants help with Szymborska's Polish references, or a sense of the biographical, linguistic, and political overtones of her work, has to look elsewhere.

Szymborska came of age during World War II, and spent much of her life under Stalinism. Thus she saw her country twice destroyed. She made her literary debut in 1945 with a poem in a Cracow newspaper and in 1949 her first volume was scheduled for publication, but it never appeared. That year Socialist Realism was imposed on Polish artists and, as Czeslaw Milosz has written, "the world of Orwell ceased to be a literary fiction in Poland." Szymborska's manuscript was attacked for being morbidly obsessed with the war and inaccessible to the masses, and was therefore unpublishable.

The poets of Szymborska's generation responded to authoritarian pressures in different ways. Some, like Zbigniew Herbert and Miron Bialoszewski, chose internal exile, or "writing for the drawer"; others, like Rózewicz, who was already famous, and Szymborska, who was virtually unknown, tried to conform. The poems that subsequently went into That's What We Live For and Questions Put to Myself range from dogmatic denunciations of the old order to strident condemnations of Western imperialism, and they take the Party line on any number of subjects—from the Allied release of German war criminals, to the Korean War, to the sufferings of working people under the capitalist system. Questions Put to Myself contains a few reflective lyrics, largely love poems, but most of the poems are on contemporary issues and make discouraging reading. One critic has described Szymborska's style in these early books as "agitation-propaganda in a chamber-music manner."

But with her third collection, published after the "thaw" of 1956—the year that censorship famously loosened its grip on Poland—Szymborska began to sound her own note. The three poems that Baranczak and Cavanagh have included from Calling Out to Yeti reveal a disillusion with Stalinist politics, and are marked by mordant humor and a deep skepticism. The figure of Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, is the book's central metaphor for Stalinism. Believing in communism is like believing in the Abominable Snowman: neither offers any human warmth or artistic comfort. "Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition" ends:

    Yeti, we've got Shakespeare there.
    Yeti, we play solitaire
    and violin. At nightfall,
    we turn lights on, Yeti.
    Up here it's neither moon nor earth.
    Tears freeze.
    Oh Yeti, semi-moonman,
    turn back, think again!
    I called this to the Yeti
    inside four walls of avalanche,
    stomping my feet for warmth
    on the everlasting

The opening poem of Calling Out to Yeti, "Brueghel's Two Monkeys," takes off from the painting Two Monkeys in Chains, in which a pair of monkeys are chained by the waist in the embrasure of a fortress wall. One is turned toward the misty panorama of Antwerp in the background, the other away from it, emblems perhaps of the poet's divided consciousness.

     This is what I see in my dreams about final exams:
     two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
     the sky behind them flutters,
     the sea is taking its bath,
     The exam is History of Mankind.
     I stammer and hedge.

Brueghel's painting has been understood as a protest against the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands in the mid-sixteenth century; so, too, in 1957 Szymborska's poem was widely interpreted as a protest against Stalinist repression.

     One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
     the other seems to be dreaming away—
     but when it's clear I don't know what to say
     he prompts me with a gentle
     clinking of his chain.

In the Sixties Szymborska truly hit her stride. From that time her voice has increasingly taken on the sharp sting of experience, while she has not so much developed as perfected her strategies. In many of her poems she first considers a subject, next embraces it, then she reverses herself, undercutting what went before with sharp, disillusioned comment. "See how efficient it still is, / how it keeps itself in shape—/ our century's hatred," she writes, and "Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others":

     A couple of problems weren't going
     to come up anymore:
     hunger, for example,
     and war, and so forth.
     There was going to be respect
     for helpless people's helplessness,
     trust, that kind of stuff.
     Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
     is now faced
     with a hopeless task.
     Stupidity isn't funny.
     Wisdom isn't gay.
     isn't that young girl anymore,
     et cetera, alas.
     God was finally going to believe
     in a man both good and strong,
     but good and strong
     are still two different men.
                              ("The Century's Decline")

Szymborska is a highly conceptual poet, and an idiosyncratic one. Reading the great twentieth-century poets—Eliot, for example, or Vallejo—one feels the language moving mysteriously ahead of the thought, the combination of words unlocking perceptions deeper than the conscious mind; hence the high premium these poets place on the irrational and the unconscious in the creative process. In Szymborska's case the governing rationale of a poem comes first and then develops in unexpected directions, while the poem quietly shifts to close range. "Could Have" appears to be set in wartime Poland during the German occupation:

     It could have happened.
     It had to happen.
     It happened earlier. Later.
     Nearer. Father off.
     It happened, but not to you.
     You were saved because you were the first.
     You were saved because you were the last.
     Alone. With others.
     On the right. The left.
     Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
     Because the day was sunny.
     You were in luck—there was a forest.
     You were in luck—there were no trees.
     You were in luck—a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
     a jamb, a turn, a quarter inch, an instant….
     So you're here? Still dizzy from another dodge,
     close shave, reprieve?
     One hole in the net and you slipped through?
     I couldn't be more shocked or speechless.
     how your heart pounds inside me.

While the poem recalls the brutal uncertainty of the Nazi period, it also addresses the radical contingency of experience itself—the "sheer dumb luck"—that leads to one's survival. So, too, there is a sense of the vast distance between simple things ("a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake …") and how much life depends on them. Even the most innocuous objects can become sinister or hazardous, while ridiculous coincidences can account for one's survival. It's as if we're all actors in an unrehearsed slapstick comedy. But the poem ends in bitter irony, for the speaker has had her share of unwitting reprieves, and ruefully pays for them with an incurably guilty conscience.

Szymborska's mastery of the conditional lends her poetry its wit and its experimental feeling. She will run through all the ramifications of an idea to see what it will yield; indeed, she pursues large, unanswerable questions nonchalantly, with an offhand charm. She typically begins a poem with a simple paradoxical assertion—"The Great Mother has no face" ("A Paleolithic Fertility Fetish") or "Four billion people on this earth, / but my imagination is still the same" ("A Large Number")—which the poem breezily sets out to explore. Just as often a philosophical question is raised: Can time be stopped by a work of art? ("The People on the Bridge"); Is there an afterlife? ("Elegiac Calculation") Because of her method there's not much descriptive writing in her work ("Save me, sacred folly of description!" she cries in "Clochard"), though she is capable of quick, precise brushstrokes.

Often she meditates on huge general subjects such as "Hatred" and "True Love" and ranges from the mathematical concept of "Pi" to the socialist ideal of Utopia to the joys of composing poetry. Characteristically a poem is made up of questions ("Plotting with the Dead"). Or of apologies, as in "Under One Small Star":

     My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
     My apologies to necessity if I'm mistaken, after all.
     Please, don't be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
     May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
     My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
     My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
     Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
     Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
     I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.

As this poem progresses the speaker keeps shifting from one category to another. She begs forgiveness from inanimate objects, and even concepts, then from places and from groups of people—everything is anthropomorphized. She herself feels unequal to the world's sufferings, and fears that by narrowing her focus on the world to make it manageable, she has trivialized it. But all viewpoints are incomplete, all efforts inadequate: "My apologies to everything that I can't be everywhere at once. / My apologies to everyone that I can't be each woman and each man." The poem's conclusion amounts to a small ars poetica:

     Don't bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow
     weighty words,
     then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

Szymborska plays with scale and changes in voice throughout her work. She will take a nonhuman perspective in order to expose what people are really like, speaking through some small animal like a tarsier, or from the point of view of a god observing human beings from a vast height and in a bemused outrage, as in "No End of Fun":

     So he's got to have happiness,
     he's got to have truth, too,
     he's got to have eternity—
     did you ever!

The miniaturization of human beings gives a Swiftian quality to Szymborska's work, as she shifts the scale to examine humanity under a magnifying glass. And she is an especially keen ironist of sentimentality and political cant.

     And who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
     That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitler's' little boy!
                 ("Hitler's First Photograph")

The key to Szymborska's style may well be her subversive variations on familiar rhetoric, as she enters a debate already in progress or responds to a well-known story with a surprising perspective. In "An Opinion on the Question of Pornography" she turns the argument for legalizing pornography on its head to include the scandalous pleasures of thought itself: "There's nothing more debauched than thinking," the speaker declares; "This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne-weed / on a plot laid out for daisies." The context is the growing underground intellectual dissent of the late Seventies, and the period of martial law in the early Eighties when people gathered in private apartments to talk about forbidden books. Sometimes the secret police parked outside to intimidate participants in this orgy of thinking. The poem is filled with double entendres ("It's shocking, the positions, / the unchecked simplicity with which / one mind contrives to fertilize another!"), but there is a sinister undertow:

     Only now and then does somebody get up,
     go to the window,
     and through a crack in the curtains
     take a peep out at the street.

One of Szymborska's most daring poems, "Lot's Wife," retells the biblical story from the vantage point of the main character.

     They say I looked back out of curiosity,
     but I could have had other reasons.
     I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
     Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
     So I wouldn't have to keep staring at the righteous nape
     of my husband Lot's neck.
     From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead
     he wouldn't so much as hesitate.
     From the disobedience of the meek.
     Checking for pursuers.
     Struck by the silence, hoping
     God had changed his mind.

Each new reason displaces the ones before, and we can't reliably tell whether Lot's wife turned back from torpor or desolation, from shame or loss. It may be too complicated even for her to comprehend ("I looked back for all the reasons given above"); or it may have been inadvertent ("I looked back involuntarily"). The intimacy with which Szymborska treats the legend here transforms it, and for all its playfulness it echoes with the tragedy of a woman's bitter fate:

     No, no. I ran on,
     I crept, I flew upward
     until darkness fell from the heavens
     and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
     I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
     Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.
     It's not inconceivable that my eyes were open.
     It's possible I fell facing the city.

Szymborska's poetry takes place much of the time, as here, on the edge of an abyss. It is the poetry of the close shave. And it's not only accidents we contend with, but history itself, with its hatreds and more deaths than we can count ("the impeccable executioner / towering over its soiled victim"), catastrophes that defy the imagination. Yet the world keeps mysteriously renewing itself. This is the theme of "Reality Demands":

     Reality demands
     that we also mention this:
     Life goes on.
     It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
     at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.
     There's a gas station
     on a little square in Jericho,
     and wet paint
     on park benches in Bila Hora.
     Letters fly back and forth
     between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
     a moving van passes
     beneath the eye of the lion at Cheronea,
     and the blooming orchards near Verdun
     cannot escape
     the approaching atmospheric front.
     There is so much Everything
     that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.

Eventually even the worst of destructions can recede: "On tragic mountain passes / the wind rips hats from unwitting heads / and we can't help / laughing at that."

Yet for all Szymborska's bitter awareness of human fallibility, time and again commonplace miracles happen: fluttering white doves, a small cloud upstaging the moon, mild winds turning gusty in a hard storm. Szymborska slyly entitles a poem about evolution "Thomas Mann." "Dear mermaids, it was bound to happen. / Beloved fauns and honorable angels, / evolution has emphatically cast you out." But Nature never anticipated such a creature as the German novelist: "She somehow missed the moment when a mammal turned up / with its hand miraculously feathered by a fountain pen." So, too, coming upon Szymborska's work, with its strange mixture of world-weariness and exhilaration, can seem something of a miracle.

Amy Gamerman (essay date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Pole Wins Nobel Literature Prize," in Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXVII, No. 68, October 4, 1996, p. A5.

[In the following essay, Gamerman reviews the themes of Szymborska's poetry.]

In "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem," Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday, writes of a poet who contemplates the cosmos—and comes up short:

     "In her depiction of the sky, one detects a certain helplessness,
     the authoress is lost in a terrifying expanse,
     she is startled by the planets' lifelessness,
     and within her mind (which can only be called imprecise)
     a question soon arises:
     whether we are, in the end, alone
     under the sun, all suns that ever shone."

The authoress's intentions, the narrator confesses, "might shine brighter beneath a less naive pen. / Not under this one, alas."

It seems fitting that in naming its new laureate, the Swedish Academy hailed the 73-year-old Ms. Szymborska as a poet for whom "no questions are of such significance as those that are native." The author of 16 collections of poetry, Ms. Szymborska asks big questions about life, death and the meaning that poetry can claim in the face of them, in language that is direct, lucid and surpassingly modest. Citing the rich inspiration and fluid grace of Ms. Szymborska's verse, the academy hailed her as the Mozart of poetry—with "something of the fury of Beethoven."

Although hardly a household name here, Ms. Szymborska has popped up at Nobel time as a potential candidate for years. She's certainly well-known in Poland, where her work is said to have inspired everyone from rock musicians to the late film director Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose movie Red was launched by her poem "Love at First Sight." The 1996 laureate was born in 1923 in the small western town of Bnin (now a part of Kornik), but has lived in Cracow since she was eight years old. She published her first poem in a newspaper supplement while she was studying Polish literature and sociology at the Jagiellonian University in 1945. Her first effort was titled, appropriately enough, "I seek the word."

Ms. Szymborska has made seeking words her life's work, both as a poet and as the author of a magazine column called "Non-compulsory Reading," in which she reviewed everything from cookbooks to T.S. Eliot's cat poems from 1953 to 1986. Some words, however, the poet has chosen to discard. She disavowed her 1952 debut collection, That's Why We Are Alive, and the 1954 collection that followed it as attempts to conform to communist-sponsored doctrines of social realism. That gesture was not lost on members of the Swedish Academy, who specified that they were awarding the Nobel to Ms. Szymborska on the strength of the poems written since 1957—"when censorship had lost its stranglehold."

Although the academy cited the poet's 1957 collection, Calling out to Yeti, as a reaction against Stalin ("Yeti, crime is not all / we're up to down there," the narrator of one poem insists to the abominable snowman), Ms. Szymborska's poetry is not overtly political. Three English editions of her poetry have been published here, most recently, View With a Grain of Sand, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Spanning some 36 years, the poems in this collection leapfrog from one unlikely subject to another: Rubens's nudes, a poetry reading, an onion. The poems in her 1962 collection, Salt, capture an opera singer mid-aria—"Though doom be nigh, / she'll keep her chin and pitch up high!"—and a sweaty bodybuilding contestant, who "grunts while showing his poses and paces. / His back alone has twenty different faces."

The poems are vivid, witty and even funny, but mortality often laps at their edges. In "View With a Grain of Sand," from the 1986 collection, The People on the Bridge, Ms. Szymborska seems to find even poetry itself a vain exercise in the face of death, musing:

      Time has passed like a courier with urgent news.
      But that's just our simile.
      The character is invented, his haste is make-believe,
      his news inhuman.

The poems in her 1993 collection, The End and the Beginning, tackle the subjects of war, ethnic hatred and the foretaste of death the poet experiences in her own loss of memory. But time and again, her verse returns—as if drawn by an invisible magnet—to the elusive miracle of the life all around her: like the "Ants stitching in the grass" and the "white butterfly … fluttering through the air / on wings that are its alone" in "No Title Required."

Most striking, in "Maybe All This" the poet returns to the question posed by the hapless authoress in her "Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem" and turns it upside down: What if we're not alone? What if the cosmos is contemplating us? Wondering if our evanescent lives could possibly be of interest to heavenly spectators, the poet—an optimist in spite of herself—answers yes.

     They've got a taste for trivia up there?
     Look! on the big screen a little girl
     is sewing a button on her sleeve.
     The radar shrieks,
     the staff comes at a run.
     What a darling little being
     with its tiny heart beating inside it!
     How sweet, its solemn
     threading of the needle!
     Someone cries enraptured:
     Get the Boss,
     tell him he's got to see this for himself!

Dean E. Murphy (essay 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Reclusive Polish Poet Awarded Nobel Prize," in Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1996, p. A1.

[In the following essay, Murphy relates the reponses of other Polish writers to the announcement of Szymborska's award.]

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, a reclusive widow whose seductively simple verse has captured the wit and wisdom of everyday life for the past half century, has been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday in Stockholm.

Unassuming, shy and obsessively protective of her privacy, Szymborska had been considered a longshot for the prestigious prize, which was presented to another poet, Irishman Seamus Heaney, last year. Although she is perhaps Poland's most famous woman writer, Szymborska is often overshadowed in Polish literary circles by poets Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, both of whom have been mentioned as Nobel contenders.

"She has gone through a long evolution and has reached maturity," said renowned Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a professor at UC Berkeley, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980. "Polish poetry in the 20th century has reached a strong international position on the European continent. Szymborska represents it well."

Szymborska reacted to news of her award with characteristic humility and humor. She granted several brief telephone interviews from a faraway mountain retreat she frequents in southern Poland, then took an afternoon nap—with strict orders not to be disturbed.

"I have accepted it with surprise, of course with great joy, but also with bewilderment and embarrassment," she told a gathering of reporters later in the day, after relenting to demands for a public appearance. "My poetry is quite private. I am a private person…. I will have to be a bit of an official person, and I don't like this, because I'm not a movie star."

At 73, Szymborska is the matriarch of Polish poets, with her first collection of poems published in 1952 and her latest still being penned when the telephone call came from Stockholm. Although the volume of her work is relatively modest, the Swedish Academy referred to it as powerful art that combines "esprit, inventiveness and empathy."

Critics describe her poetry as emotional, striking—sometimes even arresting—but rarely personal. Milosz characterizes Szymborska's style as "reverse-confessional," directing her art from a carefully detached perch. When her poems do erupt from the depths of her soul, the result is so distilled that only her closest associates recognize the inspiration.

One recent poem about the death of a longtime companion, for example, told the story of their cat suddenly finding itself alone in an empty apartment. To the unknowing reader, the poem offers no clue to its intensely personal subject matter.

"This poem really moved me very much, because I knew the story behind it," said Jan Jozef Szczepanski, a prominent Polish author and friend of Szymborska. "They both cared very much for this animal, and it was her way of dealing with the death."

As with many Polish writers of her generation, Szymborska briefly dabbled in social realism—two early works glorified communism—but she quickly went on to write critically about totalitarianism, including one poem that likened Josef Stalin to the Abominable Snowman. In a later verse, "Children of Our Age," Szymborska cast politics as the obsession of our time.

     Whether you like it or not,
     your genes have a political past,
     your skin, a political cast,
     your eyes, a political slant.
     Whatever you say reverberates,
     whatever you don't say speaks for itself.
     So either way you're talking politics.

In the 1980s, Szymborska collaborated under a pseudonym in a Polish samizdat, or underground publication, as well as an exile magazine published in Paris. Earlier, she worked for nearly four decades as a book critic for a now-defunct Polish literary magazine, reviewing everything from T. S. Eliot cat poems to gardening manuals.

Her keen wit, clever mastery of the Polish lexicon and no-nonsense commentary on basic issues of human existence have made her Poland's most popular woman poet, with her most recent collection of works in its second printing.

"She writes very wise poetry, and part of its magic is that it doesn't give you any resistance when you read it," said Ryszard Krynicki, a Polish poet who publishes Szymborska's Polish-language works. "This doesn't mean that it is simplistic poetry—just that the more of her poetry you read, the more you discover new meanings."

Her poems have been translated into numerous languages, including English, but she remains relatively obscure outside her homeland. The subtleties of her poetry, the Swedish Academy said, do not always translate well, something that may contribute to her lack of an international reputation. The academy acknowledged, however, that a 1989 Swedish translation of selected poems strongly influenced members' impressions of her writing, and Szymborska credited her Swedish translator with securing the Nobel.

"If this had been a mediocre translator, we would not be talking today," she said.

Three books of her poetry have been published in English, including View With a Grain of Sand, released last year by Harcourt Brace & Co. Last January, the Village Voice described Szymborska as "a tremendous find" when previewing a public reading of her translated work in New York. "Her humor is mournful, her sadness antic, her sense of interiority completely available to the senses," the newspaper said.

In announcing the award, the Swedish Academy praised Szymborska for poetry that "with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."

The academy drew special attention to a 1980 poem, "Nothing Twice," as illustrative of "a streak of lightning" in her art. The final stanza reads:

     With smiles and kisses, we prefer
     to seek accord beneath our star,
     although we're different (we concur)
     just as two drops of water are.

Los Angeles Times (essay date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Near a People's Heart," in Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1996, p. B8.

[In the following essay, the critic considers the significance of Szymborska's award to Polish letters.]

"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," Percy Shelley once said. He was speaking from early 19th-century Europe, a world away from 1990s America, where unacknowledged power is more likely to lie with spin doctors and political action committees. What Shelley said, however, largely remains true in Poland today: The country has been carved up so many times by invaders since the late 18th century that its heart has remained whole only in its literature.

This is what makes Wislawa Szymborska, who Thursday was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, both a political and artistic leader. The intellectual Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz may be better known abroad, but Szymborska is the real "people's poet" of her nation.

You wouldn't guess this from the Swedish Academy's amusingly incomprehensible statement that it was honoring Szymborska "for poetry that … allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." Maybe it was the translation.

But her work speaks for itself. "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself," for instance, begins with this observation of some carefree animals: "The buzzard never says it is to blame … / When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame." The poem goes on to defend the animals' failure to reflect: "Why should they when they know / they're right?" Finally, the poem concludes that "On this third planet of the sun … / a clear conscience is Number One." Is the poem a spirited defense of gut instinct, of living in the moment? Or is it a subtle indictment of humans for living instinctively rather than conscientiously?

Unlike those Eastern European writers who moralize in heavy-handed prose, the genuinely humble Szymborska lets us answer the question for ourselves.

David Streitfield (essay date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Szymborska? It Means 'Famous'," in Washington Post, October 4, 1996, pp. F1, F3.

[Below, Streitfield introduces the Nobel Prize winner to English-speaking readers.]

Vihs-WAH-vah sheem-BOHR-skah.

Pronouncing the name of the 1996 Nobel laureate in literature is the hardest part. Once that's done, Wislawa Szymborska's poetry slips down like melted snow. From "Writing a Résumé":

    Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.
    Landscapes are replaced by addresses,
    shaky memories give way to unshakable dates.
    Of all your loves, mention only the marriage;
    of all your children, only those who were born.

To praise the Polish poet, the Swedish Academy resorted to musical comparisons. It called her a "Mozart of poetry" and said she combined elegance of language with "the fury of Beethoven."

The 73-year-old Szymborska tackles the most difficult subjects—hatred, love, the persistence of memory, the charms of life as well as its ravages—in the simplest language. Her poems affirm what she calls "The joy of writing, / The power of preserving. / Revenge of a mortal hand."

Still, for the English-speaking world, Szymborska qualifies as the most obscure Nobel selection since the Czech Jaroslav Sifters in 1984. If you want to be generous and include things like a special issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature, she's had four books published in this country.

Someone from NBC Radio called a local literary editor on Wednesday to arrange for some commentary on the winner but withdrew the request after learning it was Szymborska. Too little known in America, he explained. It's poetry, it's Polish, no one cares.

     Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare—
     it's time to start this cultural affair.
     Half came inside because it started raining,
     the rest are relatives. O Muse.
                                —from "Poetry Reading"

In Poland, of course, it was a different story. Szymborska's honor, which translates into $1.12 million and a better-than-average shot at literary immortality, topped all the news programs and soothed even the most contentious of political debates. A critical day-long argument in the country's senate over relaxing abortion restrictions was silenced, at least for a few moments, by the surprise news from Speaker Adam Struzik. Applause erupted on the senate floor.

The goodwill spread even to the most no-nonsense of Polish officials, Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko. He said he was sending Szymborska 21 red roses and promised to exempt her from taxes on the prize.

The announcement by the Swedish Academy at 1 p.m. in Stockholm set loose a band of reporters in search of the poet, who happened to be at a resort for writers in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane. A news conference was organized.

"My plans?" Szymborska responded to a reporter. "It's so nice to be asked about my plans. I have no idea about my plans." She later described the prize as "an extremely big honor. This means happiness and responsibility." But she fretted: "From now on, I will have to become an official person, which I don't like to be. It's against my nature."

This attitude has led to a certain obscurity. The poet doesn't do readings or appear at poetry conferences. In the first three decades of her career, she gave exactly one extensive interview. In a rare comment, she described her method: "I borrow words weighed with pathos, and then try hard to make them seem light."

     The body is a reservoir of pain;
     it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
     it has thin skin and the blood is just beneath it;
     it has a good supply of teeth and fingernails;
     its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
     In tortures, all of this is considered.
                                        —from "Tortures"

Most of the time, she's not keen on explanations. "The fact that with one writer, the words fall together into units, that are alive and enduring, and with another, they do not, is decided in a realm that's not easily comprehensible to anyone," she wrote in a 1973 book review.

Szymborska is only the ninth woman to win a Nobel in literature since the prize was first awarded in 1901, although she's the third in the past six years. She's the fourth Polish laureate, after Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905, Wladyslaw Reymont in 1924 and Czeslaw Milosz in 1980.

"Again, Poland was noticed," former president Lech Walesa bragged to Radio Zet. He said Szymborska was "so modest as a person and so great in spirit."

But the greatness wasn't always so apparent. In the 1983 edition of Milosz's History of Polish Literature, the senior poet basically dismissed Szymborska, saying, "It would be unjust to present her as a poetess of narrow range…. Yet she often leans toward preciosity."

There's evidence Milosz has since revised that harsh judgment; in a new anthology, A Book of Luminous Things, he uses five of her poems. Perhaps he is no longer angry at how she had briefly hewed to the communist line early in her career.

Szymborska published her first poem in 1945; by the end of the decade, she had a book ready. The communists, however, were asserting control over the country's cultural life. The young poet was found guilty of dwelling morbidly on World War II and being less than gung-ho about the great socialist world to come.

Publication was canceled. In 1952, a more politically acceptable collection was published under the title That's What We Live For. The book was dismissed by one critic as "agitation-propaganda in a chamber-music manner," and later cut loose by the poet as well: Nothing from it appears in her collected works.

By 1956, she was comparing Stalin to the Abominable Snowman, and writing much better poems in the bargain. Her collected work, the critic Edward Hirsch wrote in the New York Review of Books last year, takes place much of the time "on the edge of an abyss. It is the poetry of the close shave. And it's not only accidents we contend with, but history itself, with its hatreds and more deaths than we can count … Yet the world keeps mysteriously renewing itself."

At a luncheon yesterday at the Library of Congress for U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, a number of poetry buffs confessed they either hadn't heard of her or hadn't read her. But Hass himself was full of praise.

"This is an unusual case of justice being done," he said. "I thought this was a year they would take care of politics. Instead, they took care of poetry." He added that last spring he had invited Szymborska to the library, but she had declined.

The only book of the poet's that has been readily available in English is View With a Grain of Sand, published by Harcourt Brace a year ago. It was well received—this newspaper called it "brilliant"—and won a PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. The publisher sold about 4,000 paperback copies, quite good for a translated poet.

Local bookstores had a single copy, at most, on hand yesterday; they were immediately gone. By noon, Harcourt had orders for 12,000 more. "For a Polish poet, that's not bad," said Harcourt publicist Dori Weintraub.

Jane Berlez (essay date 4 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Polish Poet, Observer of Daily Life, Wins Nobel," in The New York Times, October 4, 1996, p. C5.

[Below, Berlez offers reminiscences of Szymborska from friends and writers in Poland.]

Wislawa Szymborska, a self-effacing 73-year-old Polish poet who collects trashy postcards because she says trash has no pretensions, won the Nobel Prize for Literature today.

This year's prize is the biggest ever, $1.12 million The announcement by the Swedish Academy surprised some in the literary world who had expected the 1996 award to go to a novelist because last year's winner was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Ms. Szymborska, whose name is pronounced vees-WAH-wah sheem-BOR-ska, is little known outside Poland, where she is revered as a distinguished poet from the intellectual center of Cracow. She stresses the quirks and unexpected nature of daily life and of personal relations in poetry that spans five decades. Her early work, which she has since renounced, embraced the Socialist Realism of the Stalinist era.

In its award citation the Swedish Academy noted that Ms. Szymborska has been described as "the Mozart of poetry, not without justice in view of her wealth of inspiration and the veritable ease with which her words seem to fall into place."

Word of the prize reached Ms. Szymborska in the southern mountain town of Zakopane, where she was staying at a writers' retreat. Staff members there said she was having lunch and could not be disturbed.

But after a flurry of congratulatory phone calls, including one from Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish-born poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, Ms. Szymborska, a diminutive woman with slightly graying hair, a cigarette always between her fingers, got up the gumption for a news conference.

"I don't think much of myself, but I'm afraid that saying that will be taken as trying to charm the audience," she said. But she added, "The poet as a person is in a way self-conceited: she has to believe in herself and hope she has something to say."

The citation quoted one of her poems, "Nothing Twice," from 1980, the year before martial law was declared in a crackdown on the democracy movement in Communist Poland.

The final stanza reads in the English translation:

      With smiles and kisses we prefer
      to seek accord beneath our star,
      although we're different (we concur)
      just as two drops of water are

In a telephone interview from Zakopane, Ms. Szymborska said her work was personal rather than political.

"Of course, life crosses politics," she said, "but my poems are strictly not political. They are more about people and life."

An ebullient Mr. Milosz said in an interview from his home in Berkeley, Calif., that Ms. Szymborska's award represented a "triumph for Polish poetry in the 20th century" and added, "Two Nobel poet laureates from a given country is quite good"

Ms. Szymborska's first poem was published in a Cracow newspaper in 1945 Her early work dealt with Western imperialism and depicted the suffering of the proletariat under capitalism.

But in 1954 in a collection, Questions Put to Myself, there were glimmers of the sparse style that characterizes her later work. By 1957 she was disillusioned enough to draw a parallel between Stalin, who died in 1953, and an Abominable Snowman in a collection titled Calling Out to Yeti.

The literary critic Edward Hirsch noted in The New York Review of Books earlier this year that Ms. Szymborska had concluded that believing in Communism was like believing in the Abominable Snowman: neither offered human warmth or artistic comfort.

Mr. Milosz said that Ms. Szymborska passed through a long evolution as a poet. "I didn't like her early work," he said. "She went through a Stalinist phase. But every volume is better." Her later work was unusual for the 20th century, he said. "As a person and in her poetry, she is very attenuated. It is just a whisper."

One of Ms. Szymborska's handful of close friends, Jan Pieszczachowicz, the president of the Cracow branch of the Polish Writers' Union described her as "delicate" and "sensitive," with "a wonderful sense of humor."

"In her poems there is a certain sadness, and nostalgia, a general fear of civilization and the crisis of values," Mr. Pieszczachowicz said. "But contrary to other poets, Szymborska says that one can still live nobly in her poems, she talks about ordinary everyday things, which, according to the poet, live their own separate lives. In her poetry there is no cheap sentimentalism."

Ms. Szymborska, who also won the Polish PEN club's poetry award this week, lives in a modest two-room apartment in the center of Cracow, where a cherished tall poplar grazes the balcony

She avoids literary gatherings and conferences and traipses around in old coats and sweaters, Mr. Pieszczachowicz said. As much as she disdains crowds, she likes to surround herself with a few friends "She likes herring, beans Breton style and a glass of vodka," he said.

In a poem, "Kiczowaty" ("Kitschy"), dedicated to his daughter, Mr. Pieszczachowicz said, Ms. Szymborska referred to the intrinsic value of the postcards she collects, explaining that "trash does not pretend to be anything better than it is."

Born in 1923 in Kurnik, a small town near the western city of Poznan, Ms. Szymborska moved with her parents to Cracow at the age of 8. She attended Jagiellonian University there.

Mr. Pleszczachowicz said Ms. Szymborska was married twice. Her first husband was a poet, Adam Wlodek, whom she divorced. Her second husband, Kornel Filipowicz, was a writer with whom she shared a love of fishing. Mr. Filipowicz's death in the early 1990's inspired a collection of poems that appeared in 1993, The End and the Beginning.

Beata Chmiel, the editor of Ex Libris, a leading Polish literary magazine, said that collection included "Cat in the Empty Apartment," which she described as "the best poem I have read about death." Ms. Chmiel translated the first lines thus:

      To die
      This we cannot do to a cat
      What can a cat do in the empty apartment.

"Her poetry is something very personal," Ms. Chmiel said, "and this is the victory of the Nobel Prize committee. They have given the prize to an unknown poet of Poland, but this poet can be very close to people all over the world: men, women, black and white."

In an interview with Ms. Chmiel in Ex Libris in 1994, Ms. Szymborska scoffed at the idea that there should be anything like "womanly" poetry.

"I think that dividing literature or poetry into women's and men's poetry is starting to sound absurd," she said. "Perhaps there was a time when a woman's world did exist, separated from certain issues and problems, but at present there are no things that would not concern women and men at the same time. We do not live in the boudoir anymore."

Ms. Szymborska is the fifth Polish-born writer to win the Nobel literature prize. The novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz won in 1905 for his book Quo Vadis, and Wladyslaw Reymont won in 1924 for his rendition of rural life, The Peasants. Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote about Polish-Jewish life from his perch in New York City, was awarded the prize in 1978, and Mr. Milosz, who is based at the University of California, Berkeley but keeps an apartment in Cracow, won in 1980.

The elusive Ms. Szymborska confessed that the prize would bring some unwelcome changes. "I have no defense mechanism," she told Mr. Milosz when he called from California. "I'm a private person. The most difficult thing will be to write a speech. I will be writing it for a month. I don't know what I will be talking about, but I will talk about you"

By the end of the day, Ms. Szymborska said she had had enough, and was retreating to a place in Poland even more remote than Zakopane, where nobody, and certainly not reporters, could find her.

Dinitia Smith (essay date 21 October 1996)

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SOURCE: "Competing Versions of Poem by Nobelist," in The New York Times, October 21, 1996, pp. C13-14.

[In the following essay, Smith focuses on the difference between two translated versions of a poem by Szymborska that appeared in both The New Yorker and The New Republic.]

There was a wee contretemps in the literary world last week when The New Yorker and The New Republic inadvertently published the same poem by Wislawa Szymborska of Poland, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only that but the two translations had subtly different tones, and the endings, depending on how seriously one takes these things, had slightly different meanings in the end, though, the whole matter proved to be something of a post-structuralist's dream.

The poem, called "Some People Like Poetry" in The New Republic and "Some Like Poetry" in The New Yorker, is a gentle riff on the fact that while people cannot agree on a definition of poetry itself, there are those who love it nonetheless.

The New Yorker version was translated by Joanna Trzeciak. The one in The New Republic, which was translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, had been submitted to The New Yorker, but not published, before Ms. Szymborska's recent fame.

Traditionally a magazine prides itself on being the first and only one to print a poem.

"What?" said Alice Quinn, The New Yorker's poetry editor, when first told of the similarity. "If I'd known about it I wouldn't have published the same poem."

Technically, The New Yorker was first out of the gate. Its poem came out in a special double issue on politics dated Oct 21. The New Republic's issue was dated Oct 28. Still the two translations are on the newsstands at the same time.

At The New Republic, the literary editor, Leon Weiseltier, seemed less concerned than Ms. Quinn. "I knew about it," he said, "but I don't look to my right and left. The New Yorker can do what they want to do."

How, then, did this come to pass? After Ms. Szymborska won the Nobel Prize on Oct. 3, editors all over the world scrambled to find poems of hers to publish.

Ms. Quinn said that when she received "Some Like Poetry," from Ms. Trzeclak, "I was very happy," and quickly accepted it. Nevertheless, Ms. Quinn phoned Mr. Baranczak, whose translations of Ms. Szymborska's work had appeared before in The New Yorker, to let him know she was using a Szymborska poem translated by another person.

But, Mr. Baranczak said, he and Ms. Cavanagh did not submit their translation to The New Republic until the following day, after they knew that Ms. Quinn was planning to use Ms. Trzeclak's translation.

"He didn't tell me," Ms. Quinn said, sounding a bit taken aback.

But for Mr. Baranczak, at least, the duplication seemed like sweet literary revenge. "My translation was sent to her a couple of years ago," he said on the phone from Cambridge, Mass., where he is a professor of Polish language and literature at Harvard, "but Ms. Quinn didn't want it."

As for what exactly Ms. Szymborska's poem does mean, to people in the poetry world at least, the differences in the two translations seem significant.

For one thing, The New Republic's poem has a slightly more conversational tone "What is poetry anyway?" the poet asks. In The New Yorker, the same lines are translated a bit more formally: "What sort of thing is poetry?"

But it is in the ending that the chief difference apparently lies. In The New Yorker's version, the poet seems to say that even though some people do not know what constitutes a poem, they cling to poetry anyway "as to a saving banister."

In The New Republic, the poet appears to say that even though the definition of poetry is ultimately unknowable, it is to the question itself to which the reader clings.

Mr. Baranczak, referring to Ms Irzeclak said, "My translation clings to the uncertainty, she clings to poetry itself." This is the stuff upon which translation seminars at universities are built. As the post-structuralists might say, there is no right reading of any text, the truth is in the language anyway.

Stanislaw Baranczak (essay date 27 October 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

SOURCE: "The Reluctant Poet," in The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1996, p. 51.

[Below, Baranczak discusses Szymborska's poetics, citing the poet's wisdom for realizing "that what attracts people to poetry today is … its art of asking questions."]

"The Greta Garbo of World Poetry," trumpeted a headline in the Italian daily La Repubblica; it has so far been easily the most amusing among the attempts of the news media worldwide to attach some identity tag to this year's Nobel laureate in literature. What makes the comparison genuinely funny is that it's true and untrue at the same time. Those who know Wislawa Szymborska personally will be the first to admit that she indeed has something of the famous Swede's charm and subtlety. Yet her reticence and dislike of being in the spotlight have never turned her into a recluse. Wit, wisdom and warmth are equally important ingredients in the mixture of qualities that makes her so unusual and every poem of hers so unforgettable. We love her poetry because we instinctively feel that its author genuinely (though by no means uncritically) loves us.

I have mentioned reticence, and the 1996 decision of the Stockholm committee represents, among other things, a triumph of quality over quantity. Ms. Szymborska is among the least prolific major poets of our time; there has perhaps been no Nobel Prize-winning poet who has written less verse. Over the past three decades she has published very sparingly in the Polish literary press, and her slim collections, published at seven- to ten-year intervals, recall in their infrequency those of Philip Larkin or Elizabeth Bishop. This has nothing to do with writer's block: rather, she writes deliberately little because she holds the highest standards for herself. Wislawa Szymborska, quite simply, does not write irrelevant poems. She is a poet for whom each and every poem matters.

Born in 1923, she made her debut with a Socialist Realist collection titled That's What We Live For in 1952. (The manuscript was initially considered not ideologically correct enough, and its publication dragged on for years.) Her second collection, Questions Put to Myself, came out in 1954. It is in the semantic hiatus between these two titles that we can catch the first glimpse of the genuine Szymborska, who reached her maturity with her third collection, in 1957, Calling Out to Yeti. The youthful self-confidence of the first book's title gives way to self-doubt; perhaps most significant, the plural "we" is replaced with the singular "myself."

In one of the very few interviews Ms. Szymborska has given in the course of her career, she said that in her early writing she tried to love humankind instead of human beings. One might add that the esthetics of Socialist Realism demanded love for nothing less than humankind while at the same time, ironically, narrowing the multidimensionality of human life down to just one, social, dimension; it is Ms. Szymborska's focus on the individual that allows her to view human reality in all its troublesome complication.

The most extraordinary thing about her achievement is that, in some mysterious and enviable way, the uncompromising profundity of her poems never prevents them from being accessible. Over the past decade her popularity in Poland has reached staggering proportions; some of her recent poems, like the amazing and moving "Cat in an Empty Apartment" (in which the absence of someone who is dead is presented from the perspective of the house pet he left behind), have already acquired the status of cult objects among Polish readers. As a rule, a poet's popular appeal is a commodity purchased in exchange for some concessions, for the poet's renunciation of at least a part of what constitutes the natural complexity of his or her self. In contrast, Ms. Szymborska seems to be endowed with an almost superhuman ability to be complex yet comprehensible, ambitious yet approachable, individualistic yet involved.

If this secret can be explained, it will have to do with Ms. Szymborska's being wise enough to realize that what attracts people to poetry today is not its potential for making statements but rather its art of asking questions. The model of inquiry or self-inquiry makes its presence felt with striking frequency and insistence throughout her entire work. In the concluding part of her poem "The Century's Decline" she uses an apt but surprising adjective to denote the specific quality that marks all the questions she asks:

      "How should we live?" someone asked me in a letter.
      I had meant to ask him
      the same question.
      … The most pressing questions
      are naive ones.

The accessibility of Ms. Szymborska's poetry stems from the fact that the pressing questions she keeps asking are, at least at first sight, as naive as those of the man in the street. The brilliance of her poetry lies in pushing the inquiry much farther than the man in the street ever would. Many of her poems start provocatively, with a question, observation or statement that seems downright true, only to surprise us with its unexpected yet logical continuation. What can be more banal than noting that nothing happens twice? And yet the next three lines, by pursuing this thought to its end, offer a startling view of human existence:

      Nothing can ever happen twice.
      In consequence, the sorry fact is
      that we arrive here improvised
      and leave without the chance to practice.

Similarly, the title poem in Ms. Szymborska's latest collection, The End and the Beginning (1993), opens with a statement that sounds so disarmingly trivial that it seems not to contain any revelation at all:

      After every war
      someone has to tidy up.
      Things won't pick
      themselves up, after all.

Yet the naive question implied in this poem concerns no less pressing an issue than the meaning of human history or perhaps the senselessness of it. What makes this poem typically Szymborskian is that its initial naiveté almost imperceptibly moves to another plane. The action of cleaning up the mess turns, by metaphoric equation, into the process of forgetting. Just as you must remove the rubble after the war, you must remove the remembrance of human evil; otherwise, the burden of living would be unbearable. But this means that we never learn from history. Our ability to forget makes us, at the same time, repeatedly commit the same tragic blunders.

The typical lyrical situation on which a Szymborska poem is founded is the confrontation between the directly stated or implied opinion on an issue and the question that raises doubt about its validity. The opinion not only reflects some widely shared belief or is representative of some widespread mind-set but also, as a rule, has a certain doctrinaire ring to it: the philosophy behind it is usually speculative, anti-empirical, prone to hasty generalizations, collectivist, dogmatic and intolerant.

Ms. Szymborska's finest point is that it is the very dogmatism of the opinion that prompts the naiveté of the question. Being dogmatic, the opinion is naturally self-confident and categorical as well, and may end up patching its logical, moral holes with blatant oversimplifications, unjustified generalizations and blindly optimistic (or blindly pessimistic) predictions. Such patches, particularly easy to discern, almost invite the irony of the skeptic. Thus, Ms. Szymborska's notion of the function of the poet: the poet should be a spoil-sport. The poet should be someone who calls any bluff and lays bare any dirty trick in the game played by the earthly and unearthly powers, where the chief gambling strategy is dogmatic generalization and the stakes are the souls of each and every one of us.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 67


Dobyns, Stephen. "Poetry." Book World—The Washington Post (30 July 1995): 8.

Appreciative review of View with a Grain of Sand.

McKee, Louis. Review of View with a Grain of Sand. Library Journal 120, No. 12 (July 1995): 85.

Concludes that "it is about time more readers found the poetry of Szymborska."

"Writing a Résumé for a Nobel Winner." U.S. News & World Report 121, No. 15 (14 October 1996): 32.

Brief account of Szymborska's career.

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